Introspection as a Cognitive Tool

Introspection, like its more fundamental counterpart external observation, is primarily a cognitive process. The main goal in introspecting is to discover things about one’s self. Ultimately, just as with all knowledge, the reason to seek introspective knowledge is to guide action, but the first purpose is to gain knowledge.

Unfortunately, some people seem to use introspection as a primarily evaluative tool. Rather than looking inward to answer questions like: what am I thinking? what am I feeling? what’s causing this subconscious response?, etc. they instead focus on: Am I thinking properly? Is this feeling appropriate? Did I make some (possibly immoral) error to cause this subconscious response?, etc.

Now, don’t get me wrong, those questions ARE important, but they are NOT the only or even primary purpose of introspection. The first step is to figure out what exactly is going  on internally, THEN you evaluate it, but you evaluate it while considering your knowledge as somewhat metaphysically given, e.g. “OK, I get mad at clowns, and that’s due to an improperly integrated experience from my childhood, now how can I go about fixing it or living with the anger?” rather than “Jeez, something’s just WRONG with me for having this clearly irrational emotion, I should have known better when I internalized that experience from my childhood, why haven’t I fixed it before now?” Of course, if you really did make a mistake and especially if you should have known better, then you should take that into account, make amends to anyone wronged, and recognize any immorality that played a role, but primarily you should recognize that the only thing in your control NOW is now and the future, and your focus should be on learning what your internal state is like NOW and how to apply that knowledge in making your life better now and in the future.

I have some speculations as to why so many people put the wrong focus on introspection. From day one, we are learning to observe the external world. Our culture puts a (proper) major emphasis on knowledge of the world, even when practical applications of that knowledge are not obvious. Introspection, on the other hand, necessarily starts later in life. Moreover, possibly due to a general acceptance that the internal world is an inherent mystery with no causal explanation, there is much less emphasis on introspection as a valuable tool, especially for children. As a result, if people learn to introspect at all they usually learn it AFTER they already have (at least implicit) moral standards and BECAUSE they have noticed a particular problem in themselves. This could easily resulting in having a mistaken association of introspection as a tool for morally evaluating oneself in order to fix problems, rather than a general tool for knowing one’s self.

EDIT June 29: Since writing this, I thought of a good analogy: think of your own character/psyche like a skyscraper. It was partially made by man (though the base elements are metaphysically given), and thus the making of it must be judged accordingly. However, now that it HAS been made, it is what it is and its nature must be accepted, even if the goal is to change it. Just as one does not modify the structure of a skyscraper by simply recognizing an error and condemning the man who made it, so one does not change his psyche by simply finding a flaw and condemning himself for the choices leading to it. One must act in accordance with the nature of his mind, often with the aid of the findings of psychology, in order to change it.

About Shea Levy

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    A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your sister.